When we were on vacation we met all kinds of different people. At a rest stop in Montana we met a couple who were probably about our age who had just retired and were traveling around with no specific destination in mind. Although we didn't pursue the conversation very far, I wondered if their plan was to spend the rest of their life doing that.
We also met a very nice young man who was our guide on a kayak expedition in Clayoquot Sound. As we chatted with him we discovered that he grew up on a farm in Ontario and had come to Tofino to surf. It seemed as if his purpose for living was to surf and the guiding job was just something he needed to let him live there and surf.
In both of these cases, it seemed as if the purpose for living for these people was their recreation. There is nothing wrong with vacations or recreation. We all need times of rest and refreshment, but I wonder about how people can make that their reason for living? Yet I know that we have to be careful not to be too critical because as I look at my life and reflect on the life of other people I know, I sometimes wonder what our purpose for living is. What is the life principle by which we live? As I ask that question, I don't mean the life principle by which we say we live, but the one we really live. The purpose and principle of life by which we live is revealed by what we actually do. If someone was to look at how we use our time, how we spend our money and what occupies our mind, what would they say our purpose for life is?
We call ourselves Christians and the term Christian implies being a follower of Christ. As we think about our purpose for living, as Christians, it would be good to look at the purpose for living that Jesus had. How did Jesus live His life? By what principle did He live?
Luke 9:22 gives us one statement of His purpose when it says, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”"
When we read this we discover first of all that Jesus life was focused on God's project. The word "must" is often used in Scripture to describe a divine necessity. Since the beginning of time, God has had a project to bring the people He created to Himself. Jesus came into this world in obedience to His Father and so His life was focused on God's project. He wanted to do whatever was necessary in order to do what God wanted. In order to do so He was willing to suffer. The purpose of Jesus was not suffering, but if suffering was needed to accomplish God's purposes, he was willing to suffer. And He did suffer when he was mocked and beaten. He was willing to be rejected. His purpose was not to be rejected, but to accomplish God's purposes. Yet if it was necessary for him to be rejected He was willing to be rejected because He came to do God's will. And He was rejected by the Jewish religious leaders. He was also willing to sacrifice his own life. His purpose was not to die, but to bring salvation to all people and the only way for Him to accomplish that was to die. And so Jesus died on a cross. Jesus' life was about God's will and doing what God wanted Him to do. He was willing to let go of his own life and agenda in order to accomplish God's. In the end, through the resurrection, He did accomplish God's plan and was glorified.
Jesus' life was about serving His Father. He did not come to this earth to be born, to procreate, to gather as many toys as possible and to live as long as possible. He came to offer Himself to do God's will.
As we read that, we are thankful that Jesus came to accomplish God's purpose. Yet in a way we recognize that He was a unique individual and expect that Jesus would be totally focused on God's purposes. Because of that thinking, we are tempted to disconnect what Jesus did from what is expected of us, but we can't do that because the very next thing Jesus says in this passage is, "If any want to become my followers." Being a Christian means belonging to Christ and it means following Christ. It is not simply about accepting the gift of salvation, saying thank-you and going on our own merry way. If we accept the gift of salvation, it comes to us by being followers of Jesus and we realize that the example of Jesus is an example for us to follow. If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, then we need to follow the example of Jesus as well. In Luke 9:23, 24, Jesus tells us what following Him will mean.
If we are to follow Jesus, the Bible says that we must deny ourselves. Jesus denied Himself when he left heaven. We can perhaps understand the willingness to leave our air conditioned homes to go work at camp and stay in a non-air-conditioned cabin, but that is a far cry from leaving heaven to come to earth as a baby as Jesus did.
What does it mean for us to deny ourselves? It doesn't mean buying everything at the dollar store or picking the poorest quality or not enjoying life. It is much more difficult than that. It means that our life isn't ours any more. The questions we need to answer are, Are we living for ourselves? Is Christianity our life or just a part of our life? Is Jesus at the center or are we? If we are followers of Jesus we do not belong to ourselves, but to Him who gave His life for us. LABC says, "Believers must be willing to make the pursuit of God more important than the selfish pursuit of pleasure."
But denial of self is only the first step. The next step in following Jesus is to take up our cross daily.
Jesus very literally took up His cross. He was given the cross to carry to His place of execution and then he was placed on the cross and died there. We have no question about what it meant for Jesus to take up His cross, but we do wonder what it means for us to take up our cross.
Marshall suggests that taking up our cross includes a "daily readiness for martyrdom." At the Canadian Conference we heard a missionary to China speak about the church in China. He spoke about some of the reasons why the church in China is growing so fast. Among others it is because of a willingness on the part of the believers in China to die for their faith. They live in a country in which Christianity is illegal and many of them are threatened with arrest and imprisonment. Sometimes they are even threatened with death and many are willing to die for Jesus. A few weeks ago we had Trevor speaking in our church. After the service I had a chance to talk to him and he told me that if it was God's will he was prepared to give his whole life for the cause of the gospel in Turkey. The way he actually put it was that he was willing to die in Turkey. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must also be willing to do what He did. Marshall says, "Jesus calls his followers to be prepared for death by crucifixion."
Most of us, however, will not be called upon to do that. Does this passages still mean something to us even if potential martyrdom is far from us? Can we really engage with this passage if crucifixion is such an extremely remote possibility? Does it mean anything to us if it isn't a decision we will ever have to make?
I think there is another way of looking at this. Jesus took up His cross because that was the task that God had for Him. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane He asked for God to remove the need for His death. But it becomes clear that the cross was the only way that God could accomplish His plan through Jesus. Repeatedly in the gospels, including in the verse we just read in Luke 9:23, Jesus indicated that He had come in order to die. That was God's purpose for Jesus.
We will likely not have to take up a cross in the literal sense of the word because that is not the call of God on our life. For us to take up our cross means to do what God wants us to do. The first step of being a follower of Jesus is to say that our life is no longer our life. The second step is to let God know that we are prepared to do whatever He wants us to do for Him. To take up our cross is to commit to God's will for our life. For Jesus that was taking up the cross, for us, it will be something else, but the intention is the same. Are we willing to do what God calls us to do for Him? Is it the purpose of our life to accomplish God's will for our life. If we do that, we will be doing what Jesus did.
It is interesting that the text says that we need to do this daily. How realistic and how helpful to read the word "daily" because we know very well that it is a decision that must be made daily. If Jesus re-evaluated His purpose in life in the Garden of Gethsemane then surely it is not surprising that we also need to make this decision to choose daily to accomplish God's purpose for our life. Ellis says, "Luke stresses the need for a daily renewal of such an attitude."
The final way in which we imitate Jesus is that we follow Him. How do we follow Him?
We follow Jesus by doing the things we just talked about. Jesus denied Himself and if we deny ourselves, we follow Jesus. Jesus was committed to the task God gave Him, even going to the cross. If we focus on God's purpose for our life, we will also be following Jesus.
But there are other ways of following Jesus that we should probably mention as well. We follow Jesus by doing things the way Jesus did them. Jesus lived a holy life and if we seek to live a holy life, we will be following Jesus. Jesus was filled with compassion and grace and demonstrated that compassion and grace in all His relationships. If we exercise compassion and grace in all our relationships, we will be following Jesus.
We will also follow Jesus if we rest in Him. Several times in the last week, I have heard a word of encouragement to rest in Jesus. The were based on Matthew 11:29 where we are invited to take His yoke upon us and to discover that He is gentle and humble and that in Him we will find rest. As we read these verses, we read them as a hard thing. But we need to be careful to understand that following Jesus does not mean working harder and harder to hand more and more of our life over to Jesus. It is rather trusting Him, having given our all to Him and recognizing that in Him we will find rest. Following Jesus means having the relationship with Him that He had with the Father. A relationship of trust and hope.
This is the point which is actually made in verses 25, 26. Our attitude may be "Such a life is so hard, how will I be able to deny myself and take up my cross." As we read on, we see that Jesus puts a completely different perspective on it.
In verse 24, Jesus said, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."
Have you ever seen the T-shirts with the message, "He who dies with the most toys wins." One response I saw to this was, "He who dies with the most toys is dead." Based on this verse, my question, would be, "If accumulating toys has been the pursuit of your life, have you ever really lived?"
When we were on vacation, I took the book on Harry Lehotsky's life out of the church library and read it. It is really an amazing story which illustrates this verse. Harry grew up in New York and early on developed a passion for ministry in the inner city. Most of us would think that purchasing a house in inner city Winnipeg and giving your life to ministry in the inner city was a major sacrifice. Yet this was what he was called to and as I read the story, I never got the impression that he felt he was making a huge sacrifice or suffering. The impression I got was that he was exactly where God wanted him and that he had joy in serving where he was.
If we pursue safety, abundance and pleasure and that is what our life is about, we will not find life. I believe that we will eventually find boredom because we have no eternal purpose for living.
If we are willing to deny ourselves and take up the life that God intends for us, then we will find life. I have personally discovered this in my life. Several times I have gone where I did not at first really want to go, but have found that going where God wanted me has brought great meaning and joy.
If we are willing to give up our life, the life we will find is a life filled with purpose and joy and hope. If we give our lives to Jesus, we will find life because we will be doing what God has created us for. How great it is to be doing what God has created us for.
But as we read verse 26 we discover that there is another very serious way in which we lose our life if we don't give our lives to Jesus.
The other day Jeremy told me that at Drive Through Prayer he had observed the reaction of a person who cycled by. The cyclist had noticed those sitting there, then saw the signs explaining that they were praying and then cycling away shaking his head. This was unusual because most people who pass by are encouraging and supportive. Jeremy mentioned that his initial reaction to this was to feel self conscious. I can certainly understand that reaction. Identification with Jesus is a way of sacrifice. It is sacrifice not only in the sense that we need to deny our own way and follow Jesus' way. It is also a sacrifice in the sense that it is not the most popular way in the world. Recently someone mentioned people they knew who are vigorously anti-religious. Representing Jesus to them will not be a popular thing to do. Most people around us do not assume that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. To follow Jesus will definitely be a counter-cultural thing to do. All of us face the challenge of being followers of Jesus in this context in one way or another. There are times when it is just much easier being quiet about our love for Jesus. There are times when we would like to point to Jesus, but we are afraid of the consequences and so we remain silent. There are times when the church has given up on Jesus and simply tried to present a message of niceness and helpfulness and love.
Following Jesus means that we must not be afraid to live for Jesus, represent Jesus and speak for Jesus no matter how unpopular it is. Of course, we still need to earn the right to be heard, we need to be loving and sensitive and all of that, but when our life is put on the line, following Jesus means that we stand with Jesus.
If we do not, our very eternity is in jeopardy. That is the message of Luke 9:26, which says, "Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."
For some of us it is actual persecution which may cause us to be ashamed of Jesus' name. For some of us the possibility of mockery may cause us to be ashamed of Jesus name. For others of us, adopting the values of having fun and seeking safety may cause us to be ashamed of Jesus' name. But the message of Jesus in this passage reminds us that denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus is the only way that we will gain eternal life. If we reject that way, if we are ashamed of His way of sacrifice, ashamed of His name or ashamed of Him, we will lose our life in the sense that we will lose our eternal life. Marshall says, "A person who wishes to preserve his own way of life by avoiding self-denial or martyrdom will lose his life, i.e. at the final judgment, and will not enjoy it in the age to come."
So what we have here is a principle of life. Jesus was focused on the will of the Father and therefore was willing to deny Himself by coming to this earth and willing to suffer death. As a consequence he was raised up to reign eternally. The principle, as lived by Jesus, is that if we are willing to give up our way and give ourselves to Him, God will accomplish great things and give us life.
The disciples of Jesus faced similar decisions. In the context of a passage that speaks about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, Peter commented in Luke 18:28, "Look we have left our homes and followed you." Jesus responded by affirming their decision and promising blessing and life including eternal life for their decision.
Paul certainly had made a decision to live by this principle. On several occasions he expressed this. For example, in Philippians 1:21 he wrote, "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain." Kent writes, "Christ had become for him the motive of his actions, the goal of his life and ministry, the source of his strength." In Philippians 2:17 Paul wrote, "But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—"
What decisions do you make as you contemplate what it means to deny yourself and take up your cross to follow Jesus? It will mean different things for different people because God's call to each of us is different. For some it will mean going to Africa. For me it has meant coming home. The key is "What does Jesus want me to do and am I willing to do it?" I would invite you to such a decision.
The principle of the kingdom is that God has gained by sacrificing His life in Christ. He calls us to gain by sacrificing our life for Christ.
As I have thought about these things, I have wondered if it is a principle that pertains to the church as well. I believe it would be an appropriate application of this verse to suggest that if we as a church want to save our church life we will lose it. If, on the other hand, we are willing to sacrifice our church life in order to be loving servants to those who are lost, we will gain it. I recognize and share the sentiments I have sometimes heard expressed that we need to get more people to come to church. If our motivation for that sentiment is so that we can preserve the church we have always had here, it seems to me we are going in the opposite direction of this passage. It is a way of trying to save our life. I believe that the way forward for our church is to follow the principle of this passage and be willing to lose our life as a church in order to follow where God wants us to go. We need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order that God can give life to our church. I would invite us to make that choice. What would that mean to do so? I believe that instead of saying "we need more young people to come to our church" we should say, "who are the lost and broken we can serve." I believe it would mean instead of saying, "come and see what we have going at our church" we would say, "how can we go and love the broken of this world?" I think this may be a very radical way of thinking and living, but I also believe that this is one way of reading this text and following Christ. I also believe that it is the way of God for our church.
At Christmas 2010 we were enjoying our family gathering at our home in Rosenort. As usual, when there are people who are highly involved in church in the family, we were discussing the church and also discussing things that were happening at Portage Avenue Church. Anemone had just turned 3 years old and while we were discussing these things she said, "Let it go and it will grow." We thought it interesting that she said this and asked her, "Are you talking about the church?" and she said, "yes." I have never forgotten that. I don't know if it is guidance, or prophecy or a random statement, but I do believe that the text we are looking at today says the same thing. Willingness to sacrifice ourselves and serve God brings life from Him whether personally or in the church.